On a recent Monday afternoon, a 41-year-old former Navy SEAL convicted of a drug charge appears in front of Judge Richard Hopper. As part of his sentencing, he must participate in a drug program and check in regularly with the court. Hopper, who is both father figure and enforcer, is told the man has been in compliance with his treatment program, and the man quietly leaves the courtroom. Afterward, Hopper explains that the veteran had been deployed to Panama as a SEAL.
"I thought all they did was go in and arrest [Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega," Hopper says after court is adjourned. "But this guy lost a lot of friends."
A year ago, the man's military service and diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder may have been just an afterthought in a sentencing report and courthouse talk about how sad the case was. But now it is the whole reason he is standing in front of Hopper, who presides over a new project focused on veterans in the criminal justice system.
Patterned after similar courts emerging across the country, the Hennepin County project is Minnesota's first and has brought together parties from the criminal justice system and the Department of Veterans Affairs to focus on the specific needs of veterans. A handful of defendants have been accepted into the court, which requires intensive participation on everyone's part.
The courts are in response to the realization that veterans may benefit from specific interventions and plans, and that their military experiences may be contributing factors for why they are in court.
A Justice Department study in 2000 found that one in 100 vets was behind bars, and that veterans account for roughly 10 percent of people with criminal records. In Minnesota, 7 percent of the state's prison population are veterans, but studies suggest those who have seen combat are a much higher percentage of that group. Many are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but the largest percentage of defendants appearing in front of Hopper have been Vietnam vets, many of whom have long histories in the court system.
Hopper has experience in this blend of traditional court and social experiment. He has presided over the county's mental health court and has seen many of the same people stand before him. Anyone with a history of being in the military is eligible for the veterans court. But Hopper says he operates on one basic question:
"Is this guy a jerk who just happens to have been in the service?"
Working through red tape
There have been snags to work out between often-competing bureaucracies. The VA, for instance, has policies prohibiting working with veterans in jail and refuses to see vets arriving in handcuffs or leg shackles. And the sheriff's office refuses to move a prisoner without handcuffs.
In one case, Hopper moved one defendant from the county jail to the county workhouse and ordered him furloughed to the VA, without handcuffs, in order to get him in for an evaluation. A VA representative attends the court every week and works with probation and social workers.
It is a particularly important relationship as state court funding becomes more sparse and federal veterans care funding remains flush.
The court uses a mentor program to encourage and monitor participants. Mike Bauman, a Vietnam era veteran whose father wrestled with what was then known as acute battle fatigue, mentors an Iraq vet in his 30s with multiple drunken-driving offenses. The program is administered by the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. So far 32 mentors have gone through training and 18 have been matched with a veteran.
"There is a network of support there and the vet is surrounded by people who care and services that are available," Bauman said. "But ultimately it's real clear -- it's for that vet to make choices."
Seeing success, failure
Two months into operation, the court has had successes and failures.
Unlike the Navy SEAL, one defendant does not fare so well under Hopper's scrutiny. A 29-year-old St. Louis Park man is in on a disorderly conduct conviction that resulted from a domestic assault. He has been ordered to abstain from alcohol, complete a chemical dependency assessment, attend a domestic abuse prevention program and have no contact with his ex-girlfriend. Hopper expresses disappointment in the man's commitment.
"I see you as someone who has a bunch of problems but feels like they don't have any problems," Hopper lectures. "Having read hundreds if not thousands of these things, I think you are minimizing. You better step up."
Hearing their stories
Another defendant, a 29-year-old Minnetonka man, faces Hopper for violating an order of protection. He has been ordered to submit to a chemical abuse assessment and it is clear he has been drinking when a probation officer has checked on him. "You've got to begin by acknowledging that you have some issues," Hopper admonishes.
In his chambers afterward, Hopper says the Minnetonka man is exhibiting a classic response, refusing to believe there is a problem. The man was a machine gunner in the Army with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He is unemployed, has children and another girlfriend is pregnant.
But there are other small victories in the courtroom. A 41-year-old Crystal man, who nervously completed a crossword puzzle while he waited his turn, appears for an update on his progress. He has been charged with burglary that was related to drugs. He has been attending his support groups and remains chemical-free. The man has a long history of drug offenses and was dismissed from the Army in the late 1980s rather than face a dishonorable discharge.
"I've known you from the past and you've really proven that you have changed," Hopper tells him.
A 56-year-old Minneapolis man with a criminal history that includes trespassing charges from Metro Transit, public urination and disorderly conduct, proudly tells Hopper of his successes. But the probation officer assigned his case worries about how well he is being monitored where he is staying, a residential care facility in a troubled Minneapolis neighborhood. The man also hopes to move away from the influences of the big city but offers some encouragement about himself, clearly wanting to please Hopper.
"I love sobriety, your honor. I've got over six months now," he says, before leaving the courtroom.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434